skunked term

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

skunked term
Data, hopefully, decimate, enormity, and fulsome are among the skunked terms identified by Bryan Garner in Garner's Modern English Usage (OUP, 2016). (Bruce Lichtenberger/Getty Images)


Skunked term is a phrase coined by Bryan Garner for a word that has undergone "a marked change from one use to another" and is "likely to be the subject of dispute" (Garner's Modern English Usage, 2009).

In Mortal Syntax (2008), June Casagrande observes that skunked terms "tend to divide people into two camps: those who think you're prissy if you stick to the old usage and those who think you're dumb if you opt for the new one."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another--a phase that might take ten years or a hundred--it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use, even if it originated purely as the result of word-swapping or slipshod extension. Group 1 comprises various members of the literati, ranging from language aficionados to hard-core purists; Group 2 comprises linguistic liberals and those who don’t concern themselves much with language. As time goes by, Group 1 dwindles; meanwhile, Group 2 swells (even without an increase among the linguistic liberals).

    "A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2. The word has become 'skunked.' . . .

    "To the writer or speaker for whom credibility is important, it’s a good idea to avoid distracting any readers or listeners--whether they’re in Group 1 or Group 2. On this view, hopefully is now unusable: some members of Group 1 continue to stigmatize the newer meaning, and any member of Group 2 would find the old meaning peculiar."
    (Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press, 2016)

  • The Ever-Changing Corpus of Skunked Words
    "The trouble is, like the language itself, the corpus of skunked words is always changing. To take just a few examples, I can remember when prescriptivists and sticklers used to grumble about the use of contact as a verb, as in When are you going to contact the senator? Hard to believe, but it's true. Obviously, they lost that battle a long time ago. Even longer ago, the expressions champing at the bit, stamping grounds, tit-bit, and pom-pon roamed the earth. Eventually (more specifically, by the end of the 19th century), they turned into chomping, stomping, tidbit, and pom-pom. If you used the older forms today, you would get some seriously strange looks. . . .

    "[T]he best general way to avoid [skunked terms] is to read good writers in books and respectable publications, and follow their lead. As for an individual word, if you have any doubt as to its meaning, look it up in the dictionary. Either the skunked meaning won't be there, or it will be the fourth or fifth definition, followed by a note that says something like nonstandard or objected to by some."
    (Ben Yagoda, How to Not Write Bad. Riverhead Books, 2013)

  • A Skunked Term: Media
    "These 'skunked terms,' as they're called, tend to divide people into two camps: those who think you're prissy if you stick to the old usage and those who think you're dumb if you opt for the new one. In other words, skunked terms are a lot like media bias: If you look hard enough, you'll find something that stinks--whether it exists or not.

    "But a little-known fact is that there is a third contingent--a group I like to call 'reasonable people,' who have better things to do than nitpick your every word or scour community newspapers for Stalinist pro-yacht-club conspiracies.

    "Media--as a shortened form of communications media--is increasingly used as a mass noun. 'The media was overreacting,' Garner writes. 'While that usage still makes some squeamish, it must be accepted as standard.

    "But Eric Partridge's 1942 Usage and Abusage and Theodore Bernstein's 1965 The Careful Writer disagree, saying 'media' is always plural. The more recent Chicago Manual of Style supports this rule.

    "Bill Walsh, Washington Post copy desk dude and author of The Elephants of Style and Lapsing Into a Comma, agrees with Garner."
    (June Casagrande, Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs--Even If You're Right. Penguin, 2008)